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Post Office Staff (Minister's Speech)

Volume 478: debated on Friday 20 October 1950

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Motion made, and Question proposed, "That this House do now adjourn."—[ Mr. Wilkins.]

12.20 p.m.

On 6th July last the right hon. Gentleman the Postmaster-General, winding up a Debate for the Government, made what I imagine most hon. Members who heard it will agree was one of the most remarkable speeches with reference to the affairs of his own Department and the condition of his own Department that has ever been made in this House by a Minister of the Crown, and on 12th July I gave notice, during Questions, that I should seek at the earliest opportunity to raise the issues connected with that speech and with the right hon. Gentleman's conduct.

The working of the Ballot has resulted that this afternoon has proved to be the earliest opportunity. I very much hope that the right hon. Gentleman will shortly be here, because I have given him notice that it is impossible to raise this matter without challenging his conduct in a number of particulars, of which I have also given him notice. I hope that the right hon. Gentleman will not cause these proceedings to be unduly prolonged through delay in his arrival which I am sorry to say, cannot but result in some prolongation of the comparatively limited observations which I hope to make.

My right hon. Friend is on his way and, meanwhile, I am taking a note which, of course, I shall pass on to him when he arrives.

I am obliged to the Under-Secretary. I know that his accuracy of mind will result in a wholly accurate record being made. I am glad to see that the right hon. Gentleman has now arrived.

I do not propose to raise again—indeed, I doubt whether I should be in order in doing so—the general merits of the Debate which took place in July. I shall content myself on that issue by saying that I and a great many others remain convinced that the right hon. Gentleman did a grievous wrong not only to a particular organisation but, what is perhaps even more important, to the good credit and good repute of the great Department of State of whose reputation he is the principal custodian.

I desire, first, to direct my remarks to his own approach to the staff of his Department—a Department of which he is the responsible head and for whose good name and repute he is answerable to this House. In winding up the Debate, to which reference has already been made, the right hon. Gentleman used words to which, as he will acknowledge, I have already drawn his attention. After a reference, which I do not wholly understand, to a union which was not concerned in that Debate at all, the right hon. Gentleman went on to say—and this is recorded at the bottom of column 708 of the OFFICIAL REPORT:
"This is typical. The Postmaster-General is being abused by a counter-clerk in a public conference in the most shameful manner. If he will behave like that in public to the Postmaster-General, what sort of courtesy do hon. Members expect in the post offices of this country to the ordinary citizen?"
I do not know whether that represents the right hon. Gentleman's considered attitude as an employer, but the right hon. Gentleman and his colleagues must not be so sensitive to criticism in public, at any rate on occasions when they cannot call for the assistance of the noble Lord, Lord Simon of Wythenshawe, and they must acknowledge that those who they employ have a perfect right to criticise them in public conferences. Indeed, the words to which the right hon. Gentleman apparently took exception are moderation themselves compared with the expressions of opinion in which Mr. Figgins, of the N.U.R., has on occasion referred to the Railway Executive.

In that Debate the right hon. Gentleman continued:
"There is being encouraged in the Post Office by this political support a spirit of indiscipline, in some cases a spirit of sabotage. [Laughter.] Hon. Gentlemen opposite think I am exaggerating."
The right hon. Gentleman then proceeded to give what he described as examples, although it so happens that neither are examples which have any materiality to the union then under consideration since they relate to a different side of Post Office business. As recorded in column 709 the right hon. Gentleman said:
"Of course, it is shocking, but it is true. Registered letters disappear in circumstances of that sort for which I cannot give explanations because there is in the post offices of this country a spirit of non-co-operation and a vendetta between various members of the staff. Is it suggested in those circumstances that I should make permanent that position?"—[OFFICIAL REPORT, 6th July, 1950; Vol. 477, c. 708–9.]
That is a very clear statement by the responsible head of the Post Office, not only that a spirit of indiscipline and sabotage is rising in the Post Office but that, as a result of it, registered letters disappear in circumstances which the right hon. Gentleman finds himself quite incapable of explaining. Be it true or untrue, that matter, as such, has no relevance to the question of the recognition of a union engaged in the maintenance of telecommunications, as no one knows better than the right hon. Gentleman himself; that is a wholly separate aspect of Post Office activities.

But the right hon. Gentleman was approached, as he will recall, by the secretary of a union directly concerned, upon whose membership, quite obviously, the observations which I have quoted pass a serious and damaging reflection—the more serious and the more damaging because it came from a source which, as I said, one would have expected to be a source of protection for Post Office staffs rather than of a public attack. Mr. Williams, the general secretary of the union concerned—The National Association of Postal and Telegraph Officers—was in communication with the right hon. Gentleman. I quote from "The Times" of the relevant date:
"Mr. Williams says that in the speech"—
that is, in the right hon. Gentleman's speech—
"it was alleged that a spirit of sabotage and a vendetta between members of rival trade unions of the Post Office had resulted in the disappearance of registered letters which could not be accounted for."
Obviously, Mr. Williams had in mind the same passage as that which I have quoted from the right hon. Gentleman's speech, as reported in the OFFICIAL REPORT.
"The association, Mr. Williams states, had been informed that what the Postmaster-General intended to convey in his speech was a vivid picture, using hypothetical illustrations, of the sort of conditions which could arise, in individual offices, where the staff working side by side were members of antagonistic unions. He had made it clear that there was no general reflection on the large majority of the Post Office staff, who were working devotedly and loyally in a spirit of co-operation to improve the efficiency of the service. Statements which had been presented to the House of Commons as positive accusations were now shown to be flights of the Postmaster-General's imagination, says Mr. Williams, and it was clear that there was no shred of evidence to justify the extraordinary charges made against the staff."
If there was anything worse than the right hon. Gentleman's original speech it was the attempted explanation of that speech given on his behalf. I ask the House to consider these words:
"What the Postmaster-General intended to convey in his speech was a vivid picture, using hypothetical illustrations, of the sort of conditions which could arise."
The right hon Gentleman said, in the House:
"There is being encouraged in the Post Office by this political support a spirit of indiscipline, in some cases a spirit of sabotage."
He then proceeded to give what he said was an example of that and I would, in particular, recall to his mind and to the minds of hon. Members this phrase:
"Registered letters disappear in circumstances of that sort for which I cannot give explanations."—[OFFICIAL REPORT, 6th July, 1950; Vol. 477, c. 709.]
That may be vivid, but it is not hypothetical. It is a precise statement of fact made by the responsible Minister and, if the right hon. Gentleman appreciates on another day—as I hope this indicates that he does appreciate—the harm he has done to the good name and the morale of the Post Office, it is not good enough for him to seek to explain it away in a subsequent letter as a hypothetical statement when, as a Minister of the Crown, he made it to this House as a statement of fact.

I hope that when the right hon. Gentleman replies he will not attempt to ride off in the way he thought fit to seek to ride off when he was approached by a trade union. No one could read the right hon. Gentleman's words, as reported in HANSARD, without appreciating that they cannot be explained in that way. Indeed, I quote the words of the great Duke of Wellington who, when approached in Hyde Park by a passer by with the words, "Mr. Smith, I believe?", replied, "Sir, a man who believes that will believe anything." A man who would believe the explanation of the Postmaster-General would believe anything.

There are one or two other matters which do arise in this connection, and which, I hope, the right hon. Gentleman will be good enough to deal with. The first of them which arises at this stage arises from the observations made by the hon. Gentleman the Member for Brig-house and Spenborough (Mr. J. Edwards) who has, in the last 24 hours, been transplanted to a more exalted sphere of activity, in which, I am sure, all hon. Members would wish him well. The hon. Gentleman—I think he is not yet right hon.—said:
"… I do not agree with the views of my right hon. Friend the Postmaster-General about the desirability of one union to the Post Office—"
The right hon. Gentleman intervened:
"I do not know where my hon. Friend gets that idea from. He did not get it from me. I have never said that."—[OFFICIAL REPORT, 6th July, 1950; Vol. 477, c. 667.]
Those who know the hon. Member for Brighouse and Spenborough know that he has an unexampled knowledge of the working of the trade unions existing in the Post Office, as for many years he was general secretary to one of the major unions concerned, and when an impression of that sort is given to such a man it cannot be simply brushed aside by the right hon. Gentleman's saying that he did not say it. Did he mean that at any time? Does he mean it still? If the impression which he gave to his hon. Friend, in spite of all his experience, was an erroneous one, I hope he will take the opportunity today of making it quite clear what his position is, because such words from such a source obviously do carry considerable weight and are liable to be believed unless explicitly denied.

Then I would ask the right hon. Gentleman to recall that, despite the circular with respect to the recent meeting which he has been good enough to send me, and to which I shall refer in a moment, and despite what he tries to say about the issue which forced him to make the speech which, I am perfectly certain, in his heart he now regrets, that issue is not a dispute between two trade unions: it is a dispute between the Postmaster-General and one trade union representing a certain section of his employees.

In fairness to the other union concerned, the Post Office Engineering Union, which, so far as I am aware, has behaved impeccably throughout the proceedings—in fairness to that union I should like to invite the attention of the right hon. Gentleman to a letter which appears in the September issue of the "Journal" which, as he is aware, is the official organ of the Post Office Engineering Union and the other union concerned in the dispute. There appears there—and to the credit of that union it appears as the first letter in the correspondence columns of the "Journal"—these words, which I would ask the right hon. Gentleman to take to heart:
"As a member of the union for nearly 20 years, I feel considerable uneasiness over the statement of the Postmaster-General regarding the recognition of the E.O.T.A. Can we expect to be so easily rid of an opponent by what is generally suspected to be a manipulation of the rule to suit us? Surely, the rights of individuals are much more important in a democratic society than the forlorn hope that we can create unity by strength of numbers without strength of conviction."
If the right hon. Gentleman thinks this is a dispute merely between two unions, or that he is really serving the cause of the other union concerned in the organisation of the grades concerned, I ask him to take those sensible words, written by a member for 20 years of the other union concerned, to heart—that you do not get over a dispute, whether between the Post Office and the unions, or between supposedly rival unions, by denying justice; and I hope the right hon. Gentleman, if his heart is hardened to any argument on this side of the House, will none the less allow his mind to operate upon one coming from what, to him no doubt, is an unexpected source.

The next issue in which the right hon. Gentleman has, in this context, shown himself much less than fair was the answer that he gave on the occasion in this House when I gave notice that I should raise this matter as I am now doing today—on 12th July. The right hon. Gentleman was asked a Question arising out of his speech. It was asked, as a matter or fact, by my hon. Friend the Member for Devizes (Mr. Hollis) and others. Like so many of the right hon. Gentleman's answers, his answer had nothing to do with the Question that was asked, but in a supplementary answer, purporting to be the answer, the right hon. Gentleman said this, with reference to me:
"I think there is nothing in what I have said in my answer which denies what I said in my statement last Thursday except—and the hon. Gentleman must refer to this again—that the engineering union, of which, apparently, he is the sponsor"—
I like that. Apparently it shows the right hon. Gentleman is beginning to approach realities—
"sent out an instruction to its members not to co-operate in raising the efficiency of the Post Office to get rid of weaknesses in the Post Office."—[OFFICIAL REPORT, 12th July, 1950; Vol. 477, c. 1326.]
That is a very serious allegation to make, and it is an allegation made in circumstances of which I think the right hon. Gentleman ought to be thoroughly ashamed.

The right hon. Gentleman, when he gave that answer, one must assume, was aware of the fact that members of the organisation concerned are not allowed by his Department to serve on joint production committees at all. I hold in my hand at this moment a notification given by the Bradford office of his Department to a Mr. Lucas, which says:
"With reference to your application for the appointment set out under 'B Joint Production Committees:' It is understood that you are not a member of the Post Office Engineering Union. If this is so it is regretted that, under the present constitution, your application cannot be considered."
So the right hon. Gentleman, when making the accusation of unwillingness to co-operate, did not see fit to indicate to the House that he was proposing to deny the means of co-operation.

I have taken the trouble to acquire the circular to which he, apparently, referred, because it deals with precisely this issue. It is dated 14th February, 1950, and it brings the attention of the members of the Association to the fact that they are not to be allowed to serve on joint production committees, and that they must make their recommendations for the improved efficiency of the Post Office through official channels as the only alternative open to them. It adds:
"It should be clearly understood there should be no lack of co-operation in your endeavour to abide by the ruling of the Association to bring about improvement in the telecommunications service, and any suggestion should be outlined."
What the right hon. Gentleman sought to do in that supplementary answer was, first of all, to attack people for not cooperating when he had himself denied them the major means of co-operation, and then to give a wholly misleading account of a circular which, as he knew, could not have been in the hands of hon. Members at that moment; and I must say that that episode strikes me as a singularly shabby one on the part of a Minister of the Crown.

I do not desire to detain the House much longer, as I understand that a number of other hon. Members hope to have the good fortune to catch your eye, Sir; but I must refer to one final matter. The right hon. Gentleman, in his speech on 6th July, concluded it with an announcement that he was proposing to call a meeting between representatives of the Telecommunications Association and the Post Office Engineering Union with himself in the chair, and I think that in his speech he indicated that that was a genuine attempt to secure some improvement in the situation. The right hon. Gentleman has been good enough to send me notes of the meeting. I understand that they are not agreed notes, but his notes.

It is not my fault that they are not agreed notes.

No. The right hon. Gentleman will appreciate that it takes, two, or, in this case, three, parties, to agree to notes; but I am taking—and it will be in the favour of the right hon. Gentleman—for this purpose his notes, which he was good enough to send me. What happened, according to the right hon. Gentleman, was that he made it a condition of any further discussion that recruiting of membership by the Association concerned should cease. The right hon. Gentleman was a little ingenuous—or perhaps I should say over-ingenious—in making such a suggestion, because it entirely disregarded the fact that, under what has been accepted as the general Civil Service doctrine, re-formulated by the Treasury as recently as last year in Staff relations in the public service, it is the size of the membership which determines recognition.

It is ingenuous, when that is in issue, to say that the only condition under which he is prepared to discuss the matter is to induce the bodies concerned to give up trying to increase their membership. The right hon. Gentleman was being very naive or very cunning in making that suggestion because it is quite obvious that when he has denied to an association recognition, to which on its membership it is entitled, it is not really helpful for further negotiation to suggest that they should allow their membership to fall. The right hon. Gentleman on his own experience will appreciate that perfectly.

There are a number of issues on which, I hope, the right hon. Gentleman will in due course offer such explanations as he thinks fit. However, I will urge this general consideration upon him. It is incumbent upon all employers, be they the heads of great Departments of State or of private or nationalised businesses, to conduct questions of trade union recognition not only with scrupulous impartiality but also with the appearance of scrupulous impartiality. I suggest that the only way that that can be done, where there are clearly published and acknowledged rules, is to apply those rules without fear or favour. I suggest that it is particularly important that this should be done to give the impression of fairness where one of the competing organisations is one with which the right hon. Gentleman has political connections—I make no complaint about that—while with the other he has not. It is particularly important that the appearance of absolute fairness should be preserved in circumstances in which it is so easy for a feeling of unfairness to arise in one particular case.

Above all, it is surely essential, if the feeling and appearance as well as the reality of absolute fairness is to be preserved, that the employer who has to adjudicate between competing claims for recognition should not commit himself to ex parte, aggressive and prejudiced statements to the detriment of either one party or the other. After what the right hon. Gentleman has done and, still more important, after what he has said, after the wholly unfair and unjustifiable attack of 12th July to which I have referred, I doubt whether the confidence of the Post Office staff that fairness as between man and man and union and union will be shown by the Postmaster-General can be re-established while he remains in that office. That, of course, is a matter which rests with the right hon. Gentleman himself and, in conceivable circumstances perhaps, with the Prime Minister. In any event I beg the right hon. Gentleman today to realise the special responsibility which rests upon an employer not only to be fair but to seem fair.

12.45 p.m.

My hon. Friend the Member for Kingston-upon-Thames (Mr. Boyd-Carpenter) has raised a matter which we have both been seeking to raise on the Adjournment. He has raised it with more restraint that I can possibly feel over an issue of this kind. I am not exaggerating when I say that nothing I have heard in this House has incensed me more than the statements made by the Postmaster-General on the occasion of which mention has already been made. I feel as strongly as my hon. Friend that it is impossible now for the right hon. Gentleman to reestablish the confidence which the staff of the Post Office ought to feel in him, and that he ought to take certain steps which arise logically from that situation.

Sir, I am tempted in what I say today to go outside what you might allow me to say, because it is surely the case that there has never been in the history of this House an example of a Minister letting down his own people as the Postmaster-General has let down his staff. I was almost dumbfounded when I heard the remarks coming from his mouth on the occasion of the Debate. It is perfectly true to say that every member of the Post Office staff feels and resents what the Postmaster-General said. Even the Union of Post Office workers—though as far as I know they have made no specific representations—must feel aggrieved at the statement made by the Minister which has disturbed the peace and well being of the Post Office organisation.

I cannot understand the attitude of the right hon. Gentleman towards his staff. My hon. Friend has quoted the following incredible statement made by the Postmaster-General:
"The Postmaster-General is being abused by a counter clerk in a public conference in the most shameful manner. If he will behave like that in public to the Postmaster-General, what sort of courtesy do hon. Members expect in the post offices of this country to the ordinary citizen?—[OFFICIAL REPORT, 6th July, 1950; Vol. 477, c. 708–9.]
This denotes on the part of the right hon. Gentleman a remarkable attitude of mind. Not only is he an employer who is entitled, as an employer, to a certain amount of respect if he deserves and earns it, but he is also a political figure. As a consequence of being a political figure he must realise that he invites a certain amount of criticism.

The right hon. Gentleman should certainly not complain if some member of his staff makes attacks upon him, especially when he has refused to show that spirit of fairness and impartiality which has hithero been regarded as an essential part of his office. This attitude that a counter clerk is such an inferior being that he must not in any circumstances be allowed to criticise the mighty prescience of the Postmaster-General is something which none of his predecessors has ever attempted to establish. So I hope that when the right hon. Gentleman replies he will make it clear that he does not regard himself as inviolate in that respect.

What is important, and where I think the right hon. Gentleman has failed dismally in his duty to his staff and to his colleagues, is that he has refused to accept the principle that he must defend his own staff at all costs. This should not be difficult for the right hon. Gentleman who is a Minister of the Crown and a Privy Councillor. It is an obligation taken on by every humble subaltern of the British Army. People in much less exalted positions than the right hon. Gentleman accept that responsibility; why should he not show the same responsibility that lesser folk are quite prepared to accept? The right hon. Gentleman is the leader of the Post Office staff. They look to him to defend them when they are attacked.

We all know that the civil servants in the Post Office or elsewhere are attacked on occasions and it is the duty of the right hon. Gentleman to defend them. What has he done on this occasion? Instead of defending the staff against attacks made upon it, and bearing in mind that the staff are going through a very difficult situation indeed—things are not easy for the Post Office staff at the present time either from the point of view of their wage position or from the point of view of their having a sufficient number of capable men to run the service—at a time when they are faced with difficulties that are real and apparent, he uses his staff as political scapegoats. I think that this is a disgraceful state of affairs.

What the right hon. Gentleman is in fact doing is to bring into the calmer atmosphere of the Post Office all the bitterness and intolerance of the Welsh valleys, and I hope that it is not too late, he will try to conduct himself in a manner more befitting the office which he holds. If there was one thing which struck me as being unworthy it was this appalling apology and so-called explanation, after the allegations had been made, which the right hon. Gentleman sent through his secretary.

May I ask the House to observe the difference in attitude between the manager of the Oxford bus service and the right hon. Gentleman. Both made a mistake in relation to their duty towards their staff. The manager of the Oxford bus service did the manly thing. He went to a meeting of the employees of the service, apologised for the mistake which he had made, and put the matter right. What does the right hon. Gentleman do? Does he attempt to call representatives of the people concerned to meet him? He certainly does not. Does he even attempt to write to the people concerned a letter in his own hand or signed by his own hand? He does nothing of the kind. He gets his secretary to send a letter which he must know was not a true statement of the position.

To say that this was a flight of imagination or hypothetical is really to insult the intelligence of the people to whom the letter was addressed. How can he talk about it being a hypothetical case when he said in his own statement:
"Let me give you an example."—[OFFICIAL REPORT, 6th July, 1950; Vol. 477, c. 709.]
There is no question of it being hypothetical there. That, I think, is a shocking state of affairs. When the right hon. Gentleman makes allegations of this kind, he knows that they are not true. It is true, of course, that registered letters are lost, and to the extent of 7,000 per annum, but the right hon. Gentleman knows why they are lost, as well as I know, and that certainly has nothing to do with the rivalry between the two unions.

I will tell the right hon. Gentleman why registered letters are lost in their present number. First, because the number of registered packages has increased enormously, and, secondly, because the new system of signing for letters in bulk instead of individually allows of, and obviously will create, a greater loss of registered envelopes and registered packages. Thirdly, the Post Office, like many other organisations in the past few years, has had to take in men whom they would not have taken in had they the choice which they had before the war. These are the reasons why there are more registered letters lost today than before the war, and they are certainly not connected with the argument put forward by the right hon. Gentleman.

Indeed, this allegation is even more shabby when the House bears in mind that the only point on which there is not divided loyalty among the unions, so far as registered letters are concerned, is at the counter. It so happens that at the counter it is possible now, under the existing system, to check whether a registered letter has been stolen or not at the counter. That is one of the points left where an individual check is possible. There is no ground at all for the argument made by the right hon. Gentleman on that account.

The same thing applies to the argument about the telephone service. The right hon. Gentleman knows that these allegations were untrue, and I say that it is disgraceful that he should attack his own staff, when I feel, as do other hon. Members on this side, and, as I hope, do hon. Gentlemen opposite, that the Post Office staff, by and large, are a credit to this country. They have carried on their job, particularly the engineering staff, for many years with great skill and devotion, even when they have been underpaid. I think that both sides of the House appreciate that they have done their duty when they have been underpaid, and that they have conducted themselves in all representations which they have made to Members of this House with a dignity which I do not think exists among any other organisation of workers in the country.

It is particularly unfortunate that in these circumstances, in which we are dealing with men who conduct their affairs with dignity and restraint, the Postmaster-General should behave in the manner in which he has done. What, in fact, he has done is to sacrifice his staff for a trivial political advantage. I can think of no other Postmaster-General who would have stayed in his job had he so slandered his own staff. I am sorry to say that I can conceive of no other Prime Minister but the present one who would have allowed the right hon. Gentleman to remain.

12.57 p.m.

I have not made any detailed study of this particular union controversy or of the part which has been played by the Postmaster-General in it, but I really cannot pass the extraordinary constitutional theories advanced in the peculiar speech of the hon. Member for Cheadle (Mr. Shepherd) to which we have just listened. He said that it is the duty of a Minister to support his staff, blindly apparently, in whatever they may do. I cannot imagine any better expression of a principle of bureaucratic tyranny. Let us please recognise that a Minister has a duty to the public—the public who deal with his Department—and there is included in that duty a duty to deal strongly with the servants of that Department who fail in the service which they ought to render to the public.

I have not looked into the particular issues which arise here, but the political bitterness with which this has been introduced leads one to imagine that this is an offshoot of the Blackpool Conference, and that the ideas which we are hearing expressed are perhaps an attempt to try to split up trade union organisation in order that hon. Gentlemen opposite, as they said at Blackpool, may take advantage of the spoils.

I will disabuse the mind of the hon. and learned Gentleman of that consideration, because perhaps he is not aware of that fact that this matter was first raised in this House about a year ago.

Also, perhaps it may be said, not even in a Conservative Conference are the ideas which there find expression absolutely new. There may be exceptions. I gather that the 300,000 houses was perhaps an exception to that rule. But this idea of infiltrating and trying to split up the trade unions by supporting every dissident movement and creating trouble—we have it on the one side from the Communists and on the other side by the Conservatives—wants to be taken with the pinch of political salt it deserves.

1.0 p.m.

Like the hon. and learned Member for Northampton (Mr. Paget), I have not followed this matter with very close attention, but I have read the Debate and also have constituents who are members of what the right hon. Gentleman calls "this dissident union." The weight of the attack and the feeling on the subject come under three heads. Firstly, the Minister has thought fit to attack people who are in his employ. If we read the speech he made on 6th July and his attempted retraction in the columns of "The Times," it is quite clear that he used extravagant language, not only about this issue of the E.O.T.A., but also about members of other unions. In effect, he has launched a widespread attack on people who are in his employ.

Secondly, we are again seeing the type of attack on the workers of the country which says: "Oh, it is the Communists who are trying to sabotage the industry." Nothing can be more fantastic, and nothing can do more harm to the Post Office. We have often heard the Minister of Labour talk about the Communists. The Minister has certainly gone to great lengths to reveal evidence about the dissident elements in the Post Office, but he has gone to greater lengths in withdrawing his remarks through the medium of "The Times." One cannot imagine anything more foolish in connection with any great Department of State. It is something which is bound to lead to dissatisfaction and incompetence.

The hon. and learned Member said that we were trying to support a small splinter movement. The point is that, of the 11,000 classified as technical officers, more than 5,000 belong to this union. Therefore, it is not true to say that this is a small union. Lastly, there is the trick the Minister has tried to play of calling a truce. I received a long letter explaining how he had called together a conference which should result in a truce, the truce being that neither side should do any recruiting. Since the whole issue turns on the Listowel arrangement, it is a trick for the Minister to call a truce of no change in membership. It was precisely on this issue that the Debate took place in July, when various Treasury minutes were produced to show that once a union has achieved a membership of more than 40 per cent. there is a good case for considering its recognition.

We now find that the Minister has this solemn peace-making conference, the only condition being that neither side should recruit. Personally, I am glad to say that E.O.T.A., as far as I know, is continuing to recruit, and that the Minister will be forced into a position of having eventually to recognise the union. This union can do good work, and when the Minister comes to consider his reply, he will be well advised to be more moderate in his language and in his approach to the people in his employ.

1.6 p.m.

I intervene in this Debate because, like my hon. and learned Friend the Member for Northampton (Mr. Paget), I find it rather sickening that the so-called defence of working class democracy should come from Members opposite, whose past record is such that they should be the last to claim to be champions of our people. There is a large sorting office with several hundred postmen in my constituency, and I have not received one letter of protest, in spite of all the statements which have been made. If I understood the hon. Member for Kingston-upon-Thames (Mr. Boyd-Carpenter) aright, the Post Office are in a state of uproar and despondency; yet, I have heard nothing at all about all this.

I suggest that this is just another political stunt on the part of the Tory Party to create as much trouble as they can in the trade union machinery which has been in existence now for a great number of years. I am a little sick of these so-called working-class Tories we hear so much about. The last time one came to my constituency he made no impression at all. It is interesting to hear, in this connection, how the Tory Party cheered at their Conference the working-class accent. What a farce, and what a fraud!

I am not questioning the rights or wrongs of this issue, because it is for my right hon. Friend to give a reply, but I wish to place it on record that, in the opinion of Members on this side, we consider this to be a frivolous exploitation of difficulties that have arisen inside the Post Office. It is nothing more than an effort by the Tory Party to create trouble.

1.8 p.m.

I was sorry to hear the speech made by the hon. and learned Member for Northampton (Mr. Paget). I say that because this Debate is a sequel to a Debate which took place on 6th July, and I think he would have realised, if he had studied that Debate, that the question we are raising deserves far greater consideration than he has given it. I believe, too, that he would come to the conclusion, in accordance with his own principles, that there was a great deal in what is being urged from these benches with which he could agree.

I deplore the fact, if it has to be a fact, that this question has to be decided on purely party lines. I regret that because I do not believe it is in the public interest. I believe that the position of trade unions in the Government service is a matter in which there are a great many interests common to all parties, interests that closely concern the State and the public. While deploring the fact, if it be a fact, that there has to be a party division, let me also add that, if there has to be such a party division and the only champions of those trade unions that are refused recognition are to be found on the Tory benches, it will not be the Tory Party that will suffer. If that issue has to be debated between the parties, I am quite certain that the right hon. Gentleman's party will suffer.

Let me say what my attitude has been when I have been approached or have had correspondence with the members of the two trade unions concerned in this controversy. I think I am right in saying that I have had interviews with both of them. I have not now got the records, and I am relying on my memory. The attitude that I have always adopted towards the representatives both of the Engineering Officers (Telecommunications) Association and of the Post Office Engineering Union, when either has made any complaint regarding the other, is that I have refused to go into their allegations for a very simple reason—I have not got the means of deciding the merit of any dispute of that kind. The people who can decide between the merits of the trade unions in the Post Office are the men themselves.

If we respect the right of individual judgment by the people employed in the Post Office, cannot we leave it to them to choose between the trade unions? Must we enter into the merits, and say that one is good and one is bad? I am sure that such a thing is not in the interests of the public service or of the trade unions. I believe, in actual fact, that I have more friends and possibly supporters in the Post Office Engineering Union than I have in the other body. However, that is a wholly irrelevant consideration. I should like to say I am completely con vinced of this, I am sure the larger trade union never gains in the long run—

The hon. and learned Gentleman is now advancing an argument about recognition. The matter has already been discussed and decided by the House. I have no objection to the House discussing that matter now, but I want to be assured that I shall not be ruled out of order when I come to reply.

With respect, the question of recognition has not been decided by this House. All that the House decided on 6th July was that the right hon. Gentleman should keep his salary.

On the Adjournment anything can be discussed as long as it does not involve legislation.

I am obliged to the right hon. Gentleman. I took it for granted that I was not saying anything to which he would not be able to reply. We are anxious to get at the truth, and we do not want any such limitation.

I was saying that I am quite convinced that it is not to the interests of the larger union, on grounds into which I will not enter now, to seek to win its battle by getting an employer to refuse recognition to the smaller body, if the smaller body on all recognised principles is entitled to that recognition. I am perfectly certain it was not in the interest of the Transport and General Workers' Union to have a closed shop in London transport. I said so at the time, and I repeat it.

I quite agree with the right hon. Gentleman and others that it may be very much more convenient for many if there is only one union to deal with, but the question which we have to consider is not that of convenience, but of the denial of a human right and the imposing of a tyranny. It is tyrannical to say that the employer, even if the employer is the State—perhaps especially if the employer is the State—may say as a matter of purely arbitrary decision, "We recognise one union and we will not recognise the other." I am sure that that is not in anybody's interest.

As soon as the Treasury published the document "Staff Relations in the Civil Service," quite clearly the criterion for recognition was the criterion of numbers. I will concede to the right hon. Gentleman that that document does not state in terms that provided a union has the numbers it must be recognised, but I hope he will equally concede this to me—it is quite clear in that document that numbers are made the test, and it is equally obvious, if the right hon. Gentleman will refer to his own correspondence with the Engineering Officers (Telecommunications) Association, that he made it quite clear in the early part of the correspondence that the refusal of recognition was based on their having insufficient numbers.

If the hon. and learned Member for Northampton will look at the correspondence that passed between the right hon. Gentleman and the Engineering Officer (Telecommunications) Association, he will be genuinely shocked by the sudden change of attitude. Everything in the correspondence is based on numbers—"If you get sufficient numbers there is no reason why you should not be recognised." When they do get sufficient numbers, recognition is refused, and a good deal of mud is then thrown at the Association. I believe that the resulting sense of injustice was bound to be left by the way the right hon. Gentleman conducted these negotiations, and, above all, by his decision and what he said about it.

I do not wish to say much more about the astounding allegations which the right hon. Gentleman made in his speech of 6th July, and for which he subsequently apologised in a statement that was published in the Press. I think that he was really being grossly unfair. I do not think anybody supposed, when he was making that statement to the House, that he was dealing with something wholly imaginary. We imagined that he was giving an example of something that he alleged to be actual. He was being unfair to everybody concerned—to the bigger trade union and to the smaller trade union. He made the supposition that, if there were something from which the public had suffered, there would not be a genuine attempt by all the trade unions concerned to find out the cause. I believe that in that he slandered all concerned.

The Debate on the last occasion was remarkable also for a speech by the hon. Gentleman the Member for Brighouse and Spenborough (Mr. John Edwards). because it showed an attitude of tyranny that I thought was horrifying. It was not the first time that we had had such an attitude expressed by that hon. Member. As long ago as 14th October, 1946, I had the honour of raising the problem of the closed shop in a Debate in this House. The hon. Member for Brighouse and Spenborough, in his speech on that occasion, uttered a few sentences which I should like to repeat today. Those who are concerned with the growth of tyranny and who desire to preserve freedom, as I am quite convinced the hon. and learned Member for Northampton does, should listen to these words.

Referring to another Member he said:
"He talked about the rights of individual human liberty"—
and went on—
"I want to put quite a contrary point of view. In my view, civilisation is beginning to reach maturity when the members of any community are intelligent enough to order their affairs and to compel the recalcitrant man, the ignorant man or the wicked man, to submit to compulsory rules for the common good of all men. I put it quite like that."—[OFFICIAL REPORT, 14th October, 1946; Vol. 427, c. 661–662.]
That was his reason for denying the right of any minority union to exist or to have any recognition. "I put it quite like that," said the hon. Member. Let me mention somebody else who put it almost exactly like that. That was the late Mr. Hitler. It is very dangerous, in discussing these questions of the relations between trade unions, to fall into the language of tyranny.

As one who believes very deeply in trade unionism, I beg hon. Members not to impose tyranny, in the imagined interests of convenience. I am certain that it is not in the interests of the trade union movement. I have said to members of the Post Office Engineering Union, when that union has written to me, that I agreed with almost everything they said in their letter, with one enormous exception. I cannot see why they should want to deny the right of recognition to another union. I believe they would gain enormously in reputation and in everything else if they withdrew this objection. Anyhow, whether they withdrew it or not, I am sure that the right hon. Gentleman should not pay any attention to it.

If the right hon. Gentleman wants to be, and to appear to be, a fairminded man in this whole matter—of course, I assume that he does—he must get back to working by well-established principles. I say that well-established principles do appear in this document "Staff Relations in the Civil Service." Any genuine endeavour to apply the principles there set out would lead to his giving recognition to this union, provided it has sufficient numbers. Hon. Members accuse us of supporting dissident unions. The case raised on 6th July was that of one named body, and the treatment meted out to it. I beg hon. Members opposite, especially those who are genuine and honourable trade unionists, to consider whether they are acting wisely in this matter. They have nothing to lose by allowing the men themselves to judge to which trade union they shall belong. When the men themselves have made their decision, recognition of the trade union by the right hon. Gentleman should depend upon their numbers. That is a simple principle, and will lead the right hon. Gentleman into far less trouble than will anything else.

The moment the right hon. Gentleman abandons that principle he inevitably runs into the danger of being suspected of favouritism or of arbitrary conduct. I am trying to put the matter seriously and with moderation. I know that some of the problems of the right hon. Gentleman and of other employers are not simple, but the only way out of them is for him to have established principles which have been laid down by the Treasury. In accordance with those principles I am absolutely convinced that the right hon. Gentleman has reached the wrong decision in this case, and I hope that he will reconsider it.

1.26 p.m.

I wish that everybody on the opposite side of the House would approach this problem of recognition in the calm and moderate way that was displayed by the hon. and learned Member for Norwich, South (Mr. H. Strauss). Had that been the case in the commencement, had there been a desire for a settlement of this problem and had there been no outside interference, I am satisfied we should now have inside the Post Office a condition of co-operation and amity such as is lacking at the moment because of these differences.

I am very much surprised at the speech of the hon. and learned Gentleman. He put up an excellent and reasonable case, but I think that he forgot the resolution which was passed at his own party conference in Blackpool. I will remind him of it:
"This conference welcomes the strong and constructive policy of trade unionism contained in 'The Right Road for Britain,' and urges that everything possible should be done to encourage trade unionists to join the Council of Conservative Trade Unionists."
The right hon. Gentleman may—one never knows—occupy a position of great responsibility one day. Is that the sort of approach which the Conservative Party will take into the National Joint Advisory Council? Will they tell the Trade Union Congress and the Advisory Council," We will work with you as far as you will work with us, but we will stab you in the back and try to supersede you with a Conservative trade union council"? Really, that is playing with the destiny of this nation.

I am astonished that the hon. and learned Gentleman has made the speech that we have heard, in view of the decision of the Conservative conference at Blackpool and the resolution which, I think, was supported by the hon. Member for Kingston-upon-Thames (Mr. Boyd-Carpenter). There has been brought to this Debate the prejudice and policy shown at the Conservative Party Conference at Blackpool.

I will reply to the right hon. Gentleman. I think he misconceives the nature of the body called the Conservative Trade Union Advisory Council. In order that he should know my attitude I would make it quite clear what is the advice I give to any trade unionist who consults me. I assure the right hon. Gentleman that a number do consult me who are not of my party. My view is that it is not in the interest of the trade union to be affiliated to any political party, but it is equally important, as matters which involve politics are constantly coming up in trade unions, that, just as the Socialists prepare their case, Conservative trade unionists should do so also, and should turn up at the meetings.

In this context, neither of the unions have political associations. There is no argument, so what is the point of bringing in the political association of the parent body which has no political association? The Post Office Engineering Union is not affiliated to the Labour Party. When I am charged with favouring and showing bias to a union that is affiliated to the Labour Party, the charge is erroneous, and there is no substance in it and hon. Members on that side of the House know that there is no substance in it.

Let me come now to the other point which the hon. and learned Member has raised about recognition. I thought that we were not discussing recognition today; however, it has been brought in, and this may be a convenient moment at which I may indicate the nature of the problem. The hon. and learned Member thinks that it can be dismissed by each man deciding for himself. Let us take a particular grade of workman—a simple example is that of Male Telephonists, for which two unions are recognised. Those unions, however, will not sit down together because they are in competition.

Take the practical situation. Union A makes application for an increase of wages of 5s. Of course, union A do not deal with the men working at the same job who are in different unions. The Postmaster-General goes to union B and says, "The suggestion is that an increase of wages of 5s. should be given." Union B then says, "Oh, no. We are going to tell our members that we are asking for 7s." I am then in an impossible position. If I agree that 5s. is the right figure to be given I can only give it to union A. Union B, which asks for 7s., can take me to arbitration and the arbitrators can award six, seven or eight shillings for the same grade of workman for whom I have had an agreement for 5s. As soon as that happens, union A says, "We cannot have this. We will put in another demand," and they will put in another demand for something else. If I refuse, they can take me to arbitration again.

Does the hon. and learned Member not see that there cannot be two rates for the same people in the same job, and that really what we would get is an endless chain of competing demands all put forward, not out of a sense of grievance, but in order to create the impression, "Join our union. We can get more than the other unions," without any regard at all to the general or national interests or the real interests of their own people?

I agree at once that the right hon. Gentleman cannot possibly give different rates to the same grade because the men happen to belong to different unions. I suggest, however, that the difficulties which the right hon. Gentleman has described result, not from recognition of the unions, but from the existence of the unions. The minority union will not cease to exist because the right hon. Gentleman does not recognise it; it does not become an illegal body. It can still take him to arbitration in exactly the same way. He does not, therefore, get rid of any of his difficulties.

The hon. and learned Member is quite wrong. I cannot be taken to arbitration by any union which is not recognised. The only way I can keep the same rate for the job is by confining recognition to the recognised unions.

I do not want any inaccuracy about this. I think I am right in saying that it is recognition by the Ministry of Labour, as representing an important body of workmen, and not recognition by the employer, that entitles arbitration to be called. I think it is wrong that, if the employers refuse to recognise a union in the sphere of civil employment, the union could not go to arbitration. The right hon. Gentleman will have to check up on this.

To the best of my belief and knowledge—and I am not with out some experience in this; as the right hon. Gentleman knows, I would not deceive the House in a matter of this sort—

I agree—the question of recognition cannot be referred to arbitration, and a union which is not recognised cannot refer a wages question to arbitration. That is the position.

I should like to carry this matter one step further before I come to the speech of the hon. Member for Kingston-upon-Thames. If the point of the hon. and learned Member for Norwich, South, is conceded, then in an industry or public service with at least 250 separate grades there could be, on the conception of the hon. and learned Member himself, 500 separate unions, with this conflict going on in a big way. I assure the hon. and learned Member—I do not need to assure the right hon. Member for Epsom (Mr. McCorquodale)—that industrial relations would become absolutely impossible; there would be utter chaos. I think that the policy adopted at the Blackpool Conservative Party Conference is likely to produce that sort of situation.

I am quite prepared to give way to those who have taken part in the Debate and who have been present throughout, but it is not fair that I should be asked to give way to people who have not been present at all.

I assure the right hon. Gentleman that I have sat through pretty well the whole of the Debate, but at the other end of the Chamber. I wanted to hear the right hon. Gentleman's answer to the indictment that has been put out, and that is why I am here now and missing my lunch. Before the right hon. Gentleman leaves this particular point, I ask him if the example he gave a moment ago is not an unfortunate one. Is he saying quite seriously that on this vital matter of wage increases an established union asks for an increase, not on the merit of its case, but out of pique because somebody else has asked for more? It would be most unfortunate that that impression, from the example which the right hon. Gentleman gave, should be left on record.

I shall have to address the House in Welsh. I shall then be less misunderstood.

What I said was that that was a possibility which I could envisage. I am sure that the right hon. Member for Epsom, who has had great experience of the Ministry of Labour, will completely agree with my analysis of the position.

I want to come to the Debate which was initiated by the hon. Member for Kingston-upon-Thames. This is an astonishing business. I have never seen so much delayed synthetic indignation. The hon. Members who have spoken today were present during the Debate. Not one of them registered any of the indignation which they have taken all this time to manufacture on the occasion when I was ventilating this question.

The right hon. Gentleman must have been listening in Welsh on that occasion.

The hon. Member is incapable of benefiting from anything he hears, whether in Welsh or in English.

Let us see the course of events. How has all this been engineered? There was no protest in the House. I met representatives of nearly all the unions in the Lobby and had talks with most of them. There was no protest, no indignation spillover. In fact, my final appeal to the House had, I thought, had an effect upon hon. Members and I was looking forward to general co-operation from all concerned to try to settle this problem on the fairest possible basis. This has given me cause for great concern. I want to do what is fair and right by all the people engaged in the Post Office. I give that to the House for what it is worth.

From where did the first protest come? The first protest came from the Federation of Independent Trade Unions, that little office which lives in the shadow of the Conservatve Central Office. That was the first protest to reach me. It is true that I had also protests from the National Association of Postal and Telephone Officers. I had protests from the National Guild of Telephonists, but the National Guild of Telephonists holds the secretary of the Federation of Independent Trade Unions so we can understand it coming from that concern. I had a protest from the National Association of Telephone Supervising Officers and also from the Federation of Supervising Officers. So I had protests from three head offices of three non-recognised or dissident unions, and one from one of the other unions, but 95 per cent. of the Post Office workers made no protest at all.

I wrote the letters which have been quoted and which are in similar vein to that sent to the Federation of Supervising Officers who let the matter drop; and I had some correspondence with the National Guild of Telephonists and with N.A.P.T.O. and with the National Association of Telegraph Supervising Officers. On 12th July in this House I sought the first opportunity to clear away some of this misapprehension which had arisen. Let me see what was said during that Debate. The hon. Member for Kingston-upon-Thames says that I did make—and I agree as one reading HANSARD that I appear to have made—very severe charges against members of the staff. I agree. I left this House on that night satisfied that what I had given was only what I intended to do, which was to give an indication of the sort of atmosphere that would develop as a result of the encouragement given by hon. Members opposite to this conflict inside the Post Office.

I would remind hon. Gentlemen that I have had to live through Taff, Bedwas and Nottingham and the years after 1926 with the Conservative supported company unions which caused such desolation and which caused many of our men to be driven from the coalfields. Chapels were split and families were split and the whole situation was ruined by the bitterness engendered by the company unions supported by the Conservative Party in its attempts to destroy the legitimate trade union. That was firmly in my mind when I came to this Box to discuss this problem, and what I do not want to see in the Post Office or any other industry in this country is a repetition of what happened in the years from 1926 to 1934 in the coalfields of this country.

The right hon. Gentleman will remember the great trouble in Nottinghamshire, the stay-down strikes and the men sent to prison for nine months, all arising out of this issue. It was that sort of thing I was concerned about when I said that there was political encouragement of a spirit of sabotage in the Post Office on the part of the Conservative Party. I did not intend—I am dealing now with HANSARD—I did not intend to convey any general or particular condemnation upon the staff in the employment of the Post Office. When I saw HANSARD the next morning I felt that my words had rushed out too quickly for the HANSARD reporter. Some of us when we look at what is reported scratch our heads. We never doubt the wisdom of the reporters or their hearing. What we doubt is our own choice of words. Now I am satisfied that the vast majority of those engaged in the Post Office are not associated with this political manoeuvre now going on in connection with this matter.

I am equally satisfied that there may be some—if there are only 100 I do not care, it may be 200 or 300—who still feel that what I am reported to have said casts a reflection upon them. I have to have some regard for them. Let me say to the hon. Member for Kingston-upon-Thames that my concern is not with what he feels about it or what the Conservative Party or the Council of Conservative Unions or this Federation of Independent Unions may think. My concern is with the men engaged in the Post Office, and if there is in the mind of any single one of them any belief that what I said conveyed a censure upon them, I want from this Box now to give them unreservedly the impression that there was no intention to do so. I agree that by the reporting in HANSARD it would appear that I had, but I do want them to feel that it was never intended that anything I said was to their general detriment.

I hope that the Council of Conservative Trade Unions or this Federation of Independent Trade Unions will cease to ride this hobby horse any longer. Let us take this out of the arena and let us see if we cannot face the problem. But I would remind the hon. Member for Kingston- upon-Thames, and the hon. Gentleman who professes his affection for the working class, that after all the second resolution of the Conservative Party Conference did promise complete Conservative Party political support for this independent— what do we call them?—Federation of Independent Trade Unions—

Let us refer to the Resolution:

"That this Conference, recalling with pride that it was under successive Conservative Governments that the trade union movement developed its vital place in our industrial economy—[HON. MEMBERS: 'Hear, hear.']—desires to place on record its conviction that strong and independent trade unions are essential to the proper functioning of a free society. …"

And the strong independent trade unions shall form themselves into the Conservative Party Conservative Council of Trade Unions.

Before he leaves that point will the right hon. Gentleman, in view of what he has said, say whether it is or is not a fact that as stated by him on 6th July registered letters disappeared in circumstances due to a union dispute? Is that a fact or not?

No, I think I made it clear—I thought I did so—that these are hypothetical examples. I must rely upon the reporters, but what I am saying now is that I think I said in my speech on 6th July:

"These are hypothetical examples of what can happen."
If it is read in conjunction with what preceded it, I was talking about possibilities. Let me make it quite clear that nothing I said on 6th July was a concrete example at all. It was all hypothetical, and I think I made it quite clear that there was no intention to reflect at all upon the services and loyalty of the staff in my employ.

I think I have covered that point adequately. I think I have made it quite clear to even a dozen or so who may have been encouraged to think otherwise. No reflection at all was intended to be cast upon them, and if any reflection is cast by the report in HANSARD—and I agree there is room for that view—if any reflection is cast upon them I withdraw it, and withdraw it completely.

Might I interrupt the right hon. Gentleman for a moment about what he said about the Conservative Party? It is a pity that he dragged that into this Debate. He knows perfectly well that what our resolution stated was that we support strong and independent trade unions, such as I hope we have got at the present time—independent trade unions. I hope that the right hon. Gentleman's party also supports strong and independent trade unions. The right hon. Gentleman knows from my record that I at least would not belong to a party that did not recognise a free and independent and free trade union movement, with which I have worked just as closely in the past as has the right hon. Gentleman.

That is what is so astonishing. One knows the right hon. Gentleman the Member for Epsom (Mr. McCorquodale) and the right hon. and learned Gentleman the Member for Liverpool, West Derby (Sir D. Maxwell Fyfe). Am I to take it then that the reference to a Council of Conservative Trade Unions has as much reality as the 300,000 houses? Let us leave that and come to the other point—

I am not.

The point about the allegation against E.O.(T.)A. and production was the second point made by the hon. Gentleman. He says that I made an unjust allegation against E.O.(T.)A. I do not think that is the case. Here is the agenda of the conference of E.O.(T.)A. If the hon. Gentleman will turn to page 17, he will see this resolution:
"The agreement on the Joint Production Committees between the Post Office and the Post Office Engineering Union was investigated and it was recommended by the Central Committee that the membership should take no part in these committees. A.B.C. circular was prepared and issued to branches."
The circular was to the effect of that resolution.

The right hon. Gentleman cannot get away with that. In my speech I read the third paragraph of that circular, which makes it abundantly clear that despite the decision about membership of joint production committees, none the less the members of this organisation were urged to do all they could towards increasing efficiency in the Post Office by putting their suggestions before official channels.

I referred to the circular mentioned in the resolution and the instruction to be conveyed in it by a decision of the conference, which was based on a recommendation of the executive committee to take no part in those committees. It was on that that I based my allegation about non cooperation.

Surely the right hon. Gentleman must also bear in mind that that followed the instructions of his Department that membership of the J.P.C. was to be barred to members of these bodies? Secondly, his reference was to this circular, which says the precise opposite of what he says.

I am afraid that the hon. Member and I will not agree on this. The position is that there is the instruction of their conference. I have not a copy with me to enable me to say exactly what instruction they sent out, but I know the effect of it in the regions.

How does the right hon. Gentleman know the effect if he has not read the circular?

That is a childish remark. I have a report of the effect in the Taunton area, where they were invited to place their views before the joint production committee. The information that was passed to the secretary of the joint production committee there was that they were prohibited from doing so by the circular from their own headquarters. On that my allegation is well founded.

Let me come to the other point which was raised, namely, the question of the negotiations with E.O.(T.)A. I have had a further joint meeting this morning—I think that the right hon. Gentleman the Member for Epsom at least will be interested in this—with the Post Office Engineering Union and the National Guild of Motor Engineers. I have not reached finality with anything. Further negotiations are to take place, and a proposal that I put forward has been accepted by the Post Office Engineering Union and is now being submitted to the members of the National Guild of Motor Engineers. If there is no political interference that problem will be settled.

I turn to the discussions with E.O.(T.)A., about which there has been so much talk. It will be remembered that I made my statement about the recognition question on 17th May. Shortly afterwards, I undertook in the House that I would call all the people together as convenient, and as I could prepare the ground, with a view to resolving these differences. Whatever hon. Members in this House may think, what we must do if we can is to resolve the differences and get all those concerned working as a nappy band.

I am glad that I carry with me the right hon. Gentleman the Member for Epsom in this desire. I hope none of his back benchers will attempt to undo the work which is required to fulfil that desire, with which the right hon. Gentleman agrees.

I had a meeting with E.O.(T.)A. On 15th June it was agreed that I should pursue my inquiries with a view to settling the present difficulties, either by amalgamation, federation or a wages council, and that while these inquiries were proceeding the association would cease all activity in the political field so that the problem could be solved as a domestic matter within the Post Office. I was authorised to open negotiations with the parent union on that basis. I entered that agreeement in good faith. I thought they would stick to it, and it was a matter of great astonishment to me, when we came to have our Debate, that they had departed from the agreement.

The right hon. Gentleman must not say that. So far as I know, the organisation concerned abided by whatever agreement they may have made with him. What he must realise is that Members of this House, in the discharge of their public duties, are not bound by any arrangement which any outside organisations may make with him, and that he cannot avoid issues which he does not like to be raised, merely by making arrangements with outside organisations.

The hon. Member is too premature. I was not referring to what he did but to what E.O.(T.)A. did. On the day the Debate took place I had another letter from them in which they ran away from the agreement upon which I had induced the parent union to meet—a piece of very bad faith indeed; and if I may say so, there must have been some very bad advice behind that action. We had that Debate in which things were said which we now agree would have been better left unsaid.

Very well, and by hon. Gentlemen opposite. I had a letter from E.O.(T.)A. asking me, despite their departure from the agreement, to proceed on the basis of the agreement after they had broken it, to have another meeting with the parent union. I called this joint meeting together. I proposed that while they were discussing the means of solving their difficulties there should be an end or a postponement of hostilities. Bodies cannot be nice to each other and then stab each other in the back; that is not the way to make progress in negotiation.

Let us have an end to hostilities; let us have a truce, let us have the right atmosphere in which to solve the problem. The hon. Gentleman said that was a trick. What a conception of public duty. The right hon. Gentleman would not say it was a trick. After all, there was advantage in it, even from his point of view. If it is conceded that E.O.(T.)A. had more than 40 per cent., it would mean that whilst the negotiations were going forward there would be no interference with their 40 per cent. A truce, in fact, was more to the advantage of E.O.(T.)A. than to the parent body. In his childish innocence the hon. Gentleman regards that as being a trick. It was a real contribution towards solving this problem.

But now, for the first time, E.O.(T.)A. states a new case with a new spokesman. [An HON. MEMBER: "What a spokesman."] Mr. W. J. Brown comes in to speak for E.O.(T.)A. He alone speaks, the rest are dumb. I asked them whether they were prepared—they had asked for the meeting—that the negotiations should proceed upon the agreed basis. Mr. W. J. Brown said he knew nothing about the agreed basis and that, as far as he was concerned, there could be no truce at all. He went one step further and said that there could be no amalgamation of E.O.(T.)A. and the Post Office Engineering Union while the Post Office Engineering Union remained affiliated to the T.U.C. I did not ask him whether they would have to join the Council of Conservative Trade Unions.

The right hon. Gentleman knows it has taken a decision not to affiliate to the Labour Party.

This is obviously a bit of camouflage which the Postmaster-General is putting up. What about his friend who has now got promotion to the post of Economic Secretary to the Treasury? What about his position in the Labour Party and his position in the P.O.E.U.?

The right hon. Gentleman will agree that a member of any trade union has the right to be a member of any party. After all, he cannot claim the right at Blackpool to demand that a trade unionist should belong to the Conservative Party and deny the same right to other trade unionists to join the Labour Party.

Let me finish this argument. I am quite satisfied that were it not for the intervention of Mr. W. J. Brown the problem of E.O.(T.)A. would have been solved. I would draw the attention of the hon. Member for Kingston-upon-Thames to the fact that he has been superseded. He is the ex-sponsor of E.O.(T.)A.; the real sponsor now is Mr. W. J. Brown, whose tradition in the trade union movement is well known. He has rendered very great service, but his speech for E.O.(T.)A. indicated that there must be recognition of E.O.(T.)A. as such—that was the first thing—or that, there can be no amalgamation unless the Post Office Engineering Union resign from the T.U.C.

That is a claim which has never been made before; it is a claim which has never been advanced by E.O.(T.)A. After I had obtained the joint conference and had engaged in lots of negotiations with the parent body in order to get the right atmosphere and obtain what I hoped was a settlement, I found all my efforts being wrecked, and being wrecked not in the interests of the men who are engaged in the Post Office and who are now, apparently, going to be dragged at the tail of a political party and who are going to be used for party motives.

I am sorry about this, and I would beg right hon. and hon. Members opposite to recognise their responsibilities to the great economic fabric of this country. We must have a stable trade union movement. It must be a trade union movement which can rely upon negotiations carried out with employers being implemented and upon the fact that no attempt will be made behind their backs to destroy it. To men who have exercised the restraint which they have exercised in this country during the last few years, men who have seen us through these great economic difficulties, we ought not to say, "Yes, we will pay all sorts of tribute to you in public, but behind the scenes we will do everything we can to destroy your union and replace it by a Council of Conservative Trade Unions.

I think the right hon. Gentleman is making a point which he will discover is really a false point. No trade union can join the Council of Conservative Trade Unionists; it is not a body they can join at all. Individual trade unionists, of course, can join, just as they can join our party, the Labour Party or any other party. When the right hon. Gentleman talks about the Council of Conservative Trade Unionists as though it were something which trade unions can join, he is, I think, making a mistake. I am sure he does not wish to make a false point.

What I am saying is that the Federation of Independent Trade Unions is apparently cast in the rôle of forming the nucleus of what is the Council of Conservative Trade Unions.

I have attempted to answer the hon. Member for Kingston-upon-Thames. May I add one thing? We may have our differences and sharp shooting across the Floor of this House, but what matters to all of us is that in the Post Office there shall be a body of contented, loyal and devoted servants. I know of no sphere of economic life in this country which has the idea of public service so deeply embedded in the minds and hearts of the chaps as in this service, and I would beg hon. Members opposite to stop this synthetic agitation. Let us get on with the job. Where one can help to heal these breaches, let one help to heal them, and do not seek to create more splinters in order to serve party ends.

2.9 p.m.

I shall endeavour to continue the Debate on the note on which the right hon. Gentleman has just concluded his speech. Indeed, I hope I shall not be going outside the truth when I say that had the whole of his remarks been on that note, the chances of bringing about what we desire to bring about in the Post Office would be much greater. I was very glad that the Minister withdrew the remarks which he made about the Post Office staff, and I certainly do not wish to go further into that.

I wish to remind the House of the circumstances under which these Debates have arisen. We had a long Debate before the House rose for the Summer Recess, and I ask hon. Members opposite to believe me when I say that our feelings on this matter go far deeper than party differences because we believe that the fundamental right of the individual is concerned. The hon. Member for Dudley (Mr. Wigg) smiles. I would merely ask him to believe me when I tell him that that is our motive in this matter, and that it is not a purely party motive. This arises because the Postmaster-General in adjudicating between the claims of one union and another has departed from what has been the custom in these matters for many years, and is the custom in the Civil Service.

I cannot allow that to pass. I am being misrepresented. I have made no departure at all. We have had a Debate on this matter and we have gone fully into it. It is wrong for the hon. Gentleman to misrepresent me in that way.

I am not misrepresenting the right hon. Gentleman, as anybody who reads the OFFICIAL REPORT of the whole of the last Debate will know. In the past, in the Post Office any union which could produce a 40 per cent. membership of its grade has been recognised.

I do not say it has been a rule; it has been the custom. That has been the case. Otherwise, why do these other unions exist as they do at the moment?

The reason is that from time to time they have acquired their 40 per cent. representation of the grade which they wish to represent. Indeed, there are cases in the Post Office where there are two unions representing the same grade, as the right hon. Gentleman knows. What the right hon. Gentleman has done in this case is to refuse to recognise a body under circumstances which appear—I put it no further than that—to arise from political prejudice. Whatever he may say about the Post Office Engineering Union not being affiliated to the Socialist Party—we would give him that—I would remind him of an old saying that not only must justice be done but it must appear to be done.

When a union is a member of the Trades Union Congress and when its ex-secretary is a member of the Socialist Party and has boasted in the journal of the union that he can get the ear of his colleagues even when E.O.(T.)A. is being discussed, is anyone going to believe that the union, although it may not be officially affiliated, is not tied up with the Socialist Party? Of course not. It is asking for too much credulity to accept that. That is why I say to the right hon. Gentleman that it appears that he is coming to this decision from political prejudice. Anybody who has read the Debates and knows the history of this matter knows that that is the case.

Let me read this letter which has appeared in the journal of the Post Office Engineering Union. I take my hat off to to the Post Office Engineering Union for publishing such a letter in its journal because the letter is, so to speak, against the union. I think it is commensurate with the attitude that the Post Office Engineering Union has adopted. This letter is written by a correspondent of the name of E. J. Watts and is published in the Post Office Engineering Union Journal of September, 1950. The letter says:
"Dear Sir, As a member of the Union"—
that is the P.O.E.U.—
"for nearly 20 years I feel considerable uneasiness over the statements of the P.M.G. regarding the recognition of E.O.(T.)A. Can we expect to be so easily rid of an opponent by what is generally suspected as being a manipulation of the ruling to suit us?"
That bears out what I have been saying.
"Surely the rights of the individual are much more important in a democratic society than the forlorn hope that you can create unity by strength of numbers without strength of conviction As I see it the Union will not draw E.O.(T.)A. members into its own net by this decision, but the bitter resentment could easily create the very conditions of indiscipline of which the P.M.G. complains. In all probability if E.O.(T.)A. were put to the test it would soon collapse by reason of its own exaggerated assertions."
I think that is a statesmanlike letter and is very different from the attitude which the Postmaster-General has adopted.

I have played some part in obtaining a statesmanlike approach from the Post Office Engineering Union. They have behaved with admirable statesmanship and toleration, and I have played some part in obtaining that condition of things. I would hope that hon. Members opposite would play their part in trying to get these unions to adopt the same statesmanlike approach.

I am going to indicate the course which I believe the right hon. Gentleman should adopt in this matter, which, I regret to say, is becoming be-devilled with personalities. I agree that a way out has got to be found if at all possible. So far the matter is a complete deadlock, and I do not believe the right hon. Gentleman will bring about what he in the concluding sentences of his speech said he wishes, if he retains the same rigid attitude that he has so far adopted.

I think I shall have the whole House with me when I say that the impartiality of the Government in disputes between employers and the trade unions is of the greatest importance in industrial relationship. Further, impartiality of the employer in disputes between trade unions is of the utmost importance. In this case it is the Postmaster-General who is the employer, and not only must he be impartial, but he must appear to be impartial. For the reasons which we have adduced he has not appeared impartial in this matter. He could appear to be impartial. He could retrieve his entire position if he would stick to the custom of the past.

If the right hon. Gentleman is big enough—it will require some courage to do what I suggest—he should recognise this union according to what has been the custom in the past. Let him re-check the figures if he likes to see if they have got their 40 per cent. membership. Let him recognise that union and any other union which at a certain date has got that membership. Then let him say, "I am now not going to recognise any other unions until I have had the conference which so far has broken down." If he could start off on that basis and appear to be completely impartial, as I am sure he wishes to be, by recognising the union which has established its claim under the custom, I think he would have some hope of a successful conclusion of the talks, and of getting rid of these rivalries which any employer, be he State or private, knows are the enemies of real industrial content and production.

The right hon. Gentleman will never convince people that he is being impartial, for reasons into which I do not want to enter again, unless he is prepared before he enters into the conference to give the recognition which has been the custom in the past. If he wishes to give notice that in the future he proposes to depart from it he may do so, but he must create that feeling of impartiality and comply with the custom.

Do I understand that the hon. Gentleman's view is that E.O.(T.)A. should be recognised, that there should be a conference of all the parties, and that thereafter the position should be frozen and that no recognition should be conceded to any minority group that arose later?

I am assuming that the conference reaches a satisfactory conclusion to all parties and that a form of organisation is agreed upon. If that is done, is it the hon. Gentleman's proposition that thereafter there should never be any recognition of any other minority group, so that we should have no permanent solution at all?

That depends entirely upon the right hon. Gentleman's handling of the conference. I would never suggest any such thing in the case of minorities; that would go against the faith in which we all believe. That would lead straight to Communism if we said a thing like that. But I believe it may well be possible to get a working arrangement which will protect the minorities, and also—although we cannot get perfection in this world—provide a set-up which would be the best thing from the employer point of view. I dealt with the point at some length in my speech on that occasion. If there is to be a freeze on fresh recognitions while the conference is taking place, then up to the time the conference is called the right hon. Gentleman must recognise those who are already entitled to recognition under the old custom.

Does not the hon. Gentleman agree that it is a bad thing to have two organisations representing the same grade of worker in the same employ? Or does he think that that is a good thing and would he encourage the two organisations? Or would he not try to press the case for having one organisation?

Obviously, in the interest of the employer and production, it is a bad thing to have two organisations, but if we are to rule it out we have to face the fact that we are taking away from a man one of his inherent rights. I admit that there is always that conflict in a free society; we have to make the best compromise that we can. In the Communist society they overcome that conflict by saying that there will be no freedom to do what the State does not want a man to do. In a free society we have to face the dilemma of which the hon. Member for Bermondsey (Mr. Mellish) has spoken.

If the hon. Gentleman holds the view that in a free society the individual is free to join a union or not to join it, how does he account for the fact that when his party was in power it was common in all parts of the country for a man to be victimised for joining a trade union?

The hon. Gentleman is endeavouring to draw a red herring across the trail. I was dealing with the very serious interruption of the hon. Member for Bermondsey, and I admit the difficulty which he mentioned. It is an awkward thing. If the hon. Member for Bermondsey will do me the honour of reading the speech I made in the last Debate he will see what I said about the conflict between nuisance and authority. One has to face that conflict and to make some sacrifice in order to preserve our individual liberty.

Does the hon. Gentleman want the House to believe that, in the ordinary way in industry, there is freedom of the individual, of the worker, when he has not behind him a 100 per cent. trade union organisation? Let the hon. Gentleman bear in mind that because I was charged by my employer with being a trade union agitator trying to get my fellow men to join a trade union I was one of those who were victimised and blackballed by employers throughout the area. I had to walk the streets, out of work. That occurred 20 years ago and nothing which has been said in this Debate can remove from my mind, and the mind of other hon. Gentlemen who were victimised years ago, the feeling that behind the whole of this argument is an attempt to destroy the trade union movement and to get back to the days when men could be victimised and, with their wives and families, deprived of the right to work.

The hon. Gentleman is quite wrong. He has worked himself into a great heat about this, but apparently what he wishes to do is to switch this tyranny the other way round and to say, "Unless you belong to my trade union you shall not have a job." He has got rid of one tyranny but, if he is left to himself, he will supplant it with another—and that is what we oppose.

I have made my suggestion to the right hon. Gentleman. I will not say that it would be an easy one for him to accept, but I hope he will accept it because I believe it is the only way in which he can dispose of the difficulties which have arisen. If he accepts that suggestion he may enter a conference with the hope of reaching a working arrangement which will be to the benefit of the Post Office and of the trade unions and which will preserve the rights of individuals. If the situation is left where it is I do not think the right hon. Gentleman can aspire to obtain the conditions for which he hopes in the Post Office.

2.25 p.m.

I want to try to keep the Debate at the level which it has reached at times, although, after listening to some speeches made by hon. Gentlemen opposite, I am tempted to move away from the real issue before us. I think the Postmaster-General has dealt handsomely and generously with the points raised and that there is no need for any hon. Member to say more about it. At the same time, some hard things have been said about my right hon. Friend. Hon. Members opposite have said that never in the history of the Post Office has there been a Postmaster-General who used language like that used by my right hon. Friend. Perhaps they have never heard of the Postmaster-General who described the staff as "blackmailers and bloodsuckers." That was said at a time when the Post Office had many trade unions with no power, and they had to accept it. The Post Office staff remember that.

If I understood him correctly, the hon. Member for Westbury (Mr. R. V. Grimston) said he was prepared to see the rule revised. I want to ask him what revision he has in mind. He said that, on the question of recognition, the Postmaster-General should apply existing practices or customs. The implication in the hon. Gentleman's speech was that, if some decision was reached at a conference, he was prepared to see the rule revised in the light of the finding of that conference. Will that conference reflect the opinion of the whole staff—250,000. not 4,000. Is that right?

I will repeat it. The hon. Gentleman says there is to be a conference. Is that conference to reflect the opinion of 250,000 of the Post Office staff, and not just of 4,000?

I merely visualised the position. My case is that the Postmaster-General will not get anywhere in the present atmosphere. He must apply the rule up to the time when the conference starts and then see whether, at the conference, he can reach an agreement to alter the rule. If the rule is altered it must, of course, be based on an agreement not only between the two parties mentioned but on agreement with U.P.W. and other bodies.

It is true, as the right hon. Gentleman points out, that there are not only 4,000 people involved in this; there are 250,000. As I have said previously in this House, they cannot be ignored; they are concerned about this and they know that this custom or practice has worked against their interests. The hon. Gentleman knows that cession has weakened the capacity of the unions to take responsibility. I will tell him why; I know and he does not. It is difficult for the unions to accept responsibility because of the leakage in consulting a large number of bodies.

In the last two or three years hon. Gentlemen opposite have had much to say about the big unions exercising their responsibility to the public and to industry. I believe they should exercise responsibility; but it is difficult when we have these other bodies, who take a narrow view of the problem, and quite sincerely urge a special point of view; it weakens the staff and the unions. If there are many trade unions in an industry the efficiency of that industry will fall, and the administration will be more difficult and the workers will suffer.

I will not pursue this question of recognition except to say this. When hon. Members opposite talk about not having two rates of pay in one grade they need to look up the history of the Post Office, because they will find that in the Post Office we could have ten rates of pay for the same grade. That is one of the risks in this business. We could have in the Post Office, as my right hon. Friend has said—assuming that the staff were to be so stupid, and they will not be—a couple of hundred trade unions. It is only by the staff having come together and having merged their trade unions—freely, willingly—that this grievance has been remedied, until those ten rates of pay have been reduced to about four. Why, here in London, we had five rates of pay for London postmen at one time under Tory and Liberal Administrations.

Reference has been made to staff relations. Look at the other side of the Civil Service. I put this to the hon. Gentleman, because I think it may be that the solution of the problem could be found on these lines. In arranging the representation of the staff side of the National Whitley Council it was found, as a practical proposition, that we had to take staffs as a whole. That is to say, the Post Office staffs were regarded as one for the purpose of representation on the staff side of the National Whitley Council. We cannot solve this problem by vague talk of grades. Let us take this particular issue here. I could put up a proposition today to show that we should have about half a dozen trade unions for the staff on a cable ship. But it would be ridiculous. I do not think on the basis of grade we shall find an answer; but I think we can find an answer on the basis of the staff as one whole.

My right hon. Friend has indicated he could not make a declaration for all time. I would not seek to make a declaration for all time. Like any other undertaking, the Post Office has got to make changes. The lines of demarcation between members of the staff must be changed. Is it not better, for the mobility of labour inside a big undertaking like this, to avoid the complications and problems that would arise by recognising the staff on a basis of innumerable grades, and, instead, to take the staff as a whole?

One of the biggest pieces of re-organisation in the Post Office was facilitated by most of the Post Office staff being inside one union. I say "most." I should say 95 per cent. The problem of the reallocation of work, which neither Tory nor Liberal Administrations could settle, was settled because the staff had come together. Once they get that degree of organisation the sense of public responsibility—and no hon. Member will deny a sense of public responsibility on the part of the Post Office workers—when they reach that point, then they can take responsibility in their industry.

But if a big union like the U.P.W. accepts responsibility, and is attacked for having made an agreement, and if the Postmaster-General is to have to recognise a body breaking away from the agreement, it is absurd. It is anarchy. It does not impinge upon the freedom of the individual to join a union or to keep out of it, but if an individual goes into an industry—I put this to hon. Gentlemen opposite—has he not a duty to his fellows in the industry? He is born into society; he becomes a citizen in society; he has a duty to society; he has a duty to his neighbour. I remember that my mother was left a widow, with five children. We knew what Tory administration was and what Liberal administration was. Society did not care two hoots for her sons while they were at school, but as soon as the war of 1914 came, then society claimed them for duty. There is more than a question of rights here: there is question of duty. I am surprised that hon. Members on the other side have not emphasised that aspect.

There has been reference made to theft—to the disappearance of registered items, and so forth. I should like to say this to some hon. Gentlemen opposite. Because the Post Office reports that certain things are missing—gone astray—they must not assume that the Post Office staff are responsible.

My right hon. Friend can look after himself. I am not going to try to make a speech for him.

There were references made to the honesty of the staff and to the disappear- ance of registered items. One hon. Gentleman opposite mentioned that. He gave the numbers. He was very fair about it. I am only just sounding this word, that though the Post Office report things have gone astray, parcels have gone astray, registered items have gone astray, even mail bags have gone astray—I have known even a mail van to go astray—people must not assume that it is the Post Office staff who are always responsible.

A good many people are concerned. That is all I am saying, and I do not want to pursue the matter.

Finally, I want to say to my right hon. Friend that I hope he will go on trying to get this unity in the Post Office. The hon. Gentleman opposite says he prefers fewer trade unions rather than many. I believe him. I believe the declaration is well founded. Every Select Committee of the House of Commons concerned with the Post Office from 1904 onwards, has condemned the large number of trade unions in the Post Office. Time and time again responsible newspapers like the "Manchester Guardian" and "The Times" have said to the Post Office staff, "When you speak with fewer voices you will be listened to." Even the Administration has had to recognise the difficulty of trying to negotiate with a large number of organisations. The staff were compelled by sheer necessity to bring about amalgamation. This was not something fetched from the clouds and imposed on them. We were driven to it by sheer necessity.

I hope my right hon. Friend will go on, not being discouraged, in trying to achieve this unity. I hope the staff will not forget their history. I hope they will support him and make a real effort to bring about this unity. They will read the statement made by the hon. Gentleman opposite. They can use that. Out of this conference they may come to a solution which will be acceptable to all sides of the House and to the staff as a whole. If so, I think good will have come out of this Debate, which has often been beside the point.

It is not a personal matter. Big questions are involved here, and I hope that hon. Members opposite will take the same attitude towards this problem as the hon. Member for Westbury, help the Postmaster-General to get this conference, to persuade the other people to be helpful—I know the parent body are ready to be helpful—and to get a rule which can be applied and which will not have dubious points in it. In that way the country will benefit, and the Post Office service will benefit by achieving unity among the workers.

Question put, and agreed to.

Adjourned accordingly at Twenty Minutes to Three o'Clock.